The "Ultimate" Credit Card

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We’re still up in Maine enjoying a late burst of summer after a very disappointing season. The mail comes once a week being forwarded by our home post office. Today two boxes arrived with lots of throwaway items, mostly without even opening them.

One letter stood out from the pack so I opened it and found an invitation to apply for a credit card. Most are easy to spot and go directly into the wastebasket. This one was carefully disguised in a sleek black envelope. My first thought after figuring out what the contents were was, “so much for the credit bubble and whatever we have learned from the crunch it brought.”

First a description of the card and then some thoughts about it. I’m going to quote some of the copy on the brochure.

BLACK CARDâ„¢

The World Awaits.

GET YOUR EXCLUSIVE BLACK CARD NOW. THE WORLD’S MOST PRESTIGIOUS AND VERSATILE CREDIT CARD.

  • Limited Membership
  • 24-hour Concierge Service
  • Exclusive Rewards Program
  • Luxury Gifts
  • Patent Pending Carbon Card
  • Annual Fee $495

For those who demand only the best of what life has to offer, the exclusive Visa Black Card is for you. The Black Card is not just another piece of plastic. Made with carbon, it is the ultimate buying tool.

The first thing that caught my eye was the annual fee. Wow. I’m still using a card with no annual fee. I looked at the rest of the information to figure out why this was so high. Surely a card made from carbon instead of plastic couldn’t be the reason. Maybe the issuing bank (Barclays) doesn’t understand that the plastic cards contain carbon as well, and that this card wouldn’t reduce carbon footprint enough to attract environmentalists. The fact that it is to be patented can’t be worth that much.

It must be, then, the 24-hour concierge service. I guess the target customers for this card know what that means. The brochure tells little. I don’t know how I got on the list as I rarely stay at hotels with concierge services. How about luxury gifts? If I wanted to, I could charge fancy presents just as well on my ordinary Visa card. Maybe they mean gifts that cost more than the credit limit on my card.

To be serious for a moment, this card and the advertising for it are signs of the centrality of consumption in the US. This one is aimed at the wealthy, but I can imagine promotions aimed at other economic levels. It makes a fetish out of buying, calling it “the ultimate buying tool.” How does the fact it is carbon make it “ultimate?” It’s hard not to expect that consumption will raise to pre-recession levels when the system that provides the fuel—credit—shows no signs of learning. It’s not that we lack “buying tools.” It’s that we lack enough self-consciousness to understand that it’s not buying at all that makes us human nor fulfills our fundamental concerns.

I did a little web searching after writing this and found that this card has been around for a while. Barclays must be getting desperate adding me to the mailing list. I found some info on a competitor, the American Express Centurion card (also known as the Black Card). I never got an invitation for this one. I think I know the reason why. It costs $2500 a year after a $5000 initiation fee. Maybe the reason for the high cost is that their card is made from titanium instead of the more humble graphite.

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